Balloon Helvetia in the Gordon Bennett Race
3:59 p.m. it was commanded: “HELVETIA, go!” With a good lift, we climbed fast, and when the last tones of our national anthem “Trittst im Morgenrot daher” died away and the hurrahs and best wishes of our friends staying back could no longer reach us, our HELVETIA levelled out at about 500 m. – We had begun our great flight.
Our orientation showed, that we were moving in south-easterly direction. Until past midnight, we often could determine our position by shouting from below; “Kalau” shouted up the helpful railway-officer, when we flew over his station at 12 p.m. Then, step by step, the lights became less. The earth had covered in a deep rest.
At morning, orientation became more difficult. First a light, later thick haze reduced our views, and finally, our eyes failed completely.
Finally at 10 a.m. the building of the fog opened a little bit; we recognized an alert meandering river, later also bridges. It must be a larger stream. Finally we managed, to spot ourselves on the map as well, it was the village of Barby. Slowly the balloon moved towards Magdeburg, while it was still climbing, until we reached the maximum altitude of this day, 2200 m.
Over the swampy areas of the Drömlings our balloon started to descent. Soon we touched the ground with our trail rope, when we again came to a climb by a little drop of ballast, reaching once more 1800 m. But meanwhile, the sun closed up to the westerly horizon, the air heavily cooled down, so the balloon descended quickly towards the Lüneburger Heide.
By this time, it also had become dark, but the wind had not died down at all. We might be travelling with 60-70 km; but so we did not touch the ground with our trail rope anymore, we soared quiet through the evening air. Still we could control our orientation on the map with shouting from below. With some fear we realized, that the track we were keeping would carry our balloon immediately to the North Sea. Probability to reach it before midnight was quite big, and what then?
Of course we asked each other, if we want to go out on the sea or not. But we never got a certain answer. “Depends on the conditions” it sounded, before we turned over to another subject again and again.
We were just soaring past Celle on this second evening, having our dinner together and while the author went on his guard with a sand-bag and the shovel, my pilot prepared for a rest and soon had his well-earned, empowering sleep. Luckly, we passed a little village, still full of life. They had seen us! “Come down”, these good people shouted with all their power, “land, or you will be drowned, the sea is ahead of you.” Not very encouraging, these shouts, but the decision was made. “It’s alright”, was our answer, “we will cross it.”
Meanwhile, we already had the sea below us. Monotonously, the breakers sounded to our ears and you soon started getting used to the unusual. – There, like a last warning, one of the offshore Frisian Islands came in our path. It was the bath island “Spiekeroog”; once again I had to stand the fight in my soul; “shall we land?” But the drawn decision was too fixed. As if this landing-place did not exist, we crossed it on our trail-rope. It was 10:45 p.m. Still we recognized two lighthouse ships close to us. Still we crossed a fishing cutter, but then, only the periodical beams of the light tower of Helgoland flashed to us, just to disappear soon after. Now we were alone over the excited, mighty-roaring sea. – We had left 30 bags of ballast and a lot of stuff, we could eventually sacrifice as ballast – so no danger.
But now I made heavy accusations to myself, having flow out without making my pilot aware of it. When he awoke and asked, how far we had already come and where we are, I only could put his attention to the monotonous sound of the waves with the remark, that we were floating over the North Sea for some hours now. “That’s good”, was his answer, giving me back the full confidence, a confidence that was mutual and chained us to each other even in the hours of danger.
Very overheated on the next day, the full ball of the HELVETIA lost a lot of gas passing through the appendix. – So we had to be prepared for a strong cooling and a quick descent in the evening. To face surprises and an early catastrophe, we busy made precautions. Our load ring was prepared to serve as a place of refuge by weaving a net of strong ropes in it, then we brought all our instruments, maps and food for two days to this upper level. We also tied ropes to our bodies, to fix us in every position and to prevent us from being floated away.
Like a hush we passed the black clouds. Covered from all sides, it became cold and uncomfortable. These clouds went far down, and when we finally saw the sea again, we had already closed up to its surface to 200 m. We dropped ballast without result. Finally the trail-rope hit the excited waves. Now, we were only a few meters from the surface, we cut away the tarpon of 35 kg with a knife. It fell to the water while the balloon started to climb again. We had overthrown. Full of sorrows we looked to the constantly climbing track of the barograph. Soon we were up to 1000, 2000, 3000 and finally 3700 m, just to have another frightening drop at once.
No sign of land anymore, and we were now sitting in the balloon for 60 hours, half of this time over open sea. Why? We shouted out. We thought to have heard human voices, dogs barking, even church-bell ringing. But nothing came back to our ears, only the monotonous harmony of the breakers. – Then we believed to see clearly the lights of villages, ships, the flash of a light tower to disappear at once for ever again in the dark. – Now we felt uncomfortable because of an enormous drop of temperature. We noted minus 10 degrees C.
Then – about 10 p.m., on an altitude of 5000 m, we recognized some mountain ranges in the distance. These mountains had a similar shape like our Alps at home. We will never forget these hours, when our yearning for land became satisfied; we shook hands and drank the last bottle of Rhine-wine, toasting a happy landing. We both agreed: It could only be Norway, but on which part of this large shore was it, was something we could not recognize.
We were still busy studying this question, when we saw some strange moving of the waters surface in the distance. We soon realized, that this must be a ship. – They had not yet detected us. –We let the balloon drop still deeper. With the rope in the water, we floated over the flat surface. The boat now changed its heading and seemed to chase us. First at 2 p.m. it came as close as hailing distance, but all our efforts to learn where we were did not succeed. We shouted in English, German and French, but neither captain nor crew of this fishing boat could understand us and answered in sounds, we did not manage to understand. They were still steaming forward and when they came within reach of the trail-rope at 3 p.m. they pulled it to the boat against our protests and headed for the port with their prey.
Finally we closed up to the yearned port. The ship moored, the rope was taken by the helpful people running by and the HELVETIA was hauled to a hill close by. Here they pulled it down, and when the basket hit the ground, it was deflated by opening the rip-panel.
It was 5 p.m. So we had been in the balloon for 73 hours, 43 of them over the sea. Bergseth, the village where we landed belongs to the county of Romsdal and is 1250 kilometres away from Berlin. We could well hope, to become the winners of the Gordon Bennett Race.
The people that rushed by helped us with fun, to recover the balloon and at already 6 p.m. everything was packed and stored to the basket.
Oberst Schaeck and Oberleutnant Messner have written their reports very objectively, almost factually. After a lucky ending of a dangerous adventure, it is often exposed as not so critical. When it is still not over, the desperate situation becomes more apparent. Oberleutnant Messner wrote a message on the collar of his shirt during the flight, in the hope, this would be a report of their fate to their friends in Switzerland. This message still exists and contained:
“Driven to the North-Sea it was impossible for us to find land or help, from the night of October 12th to the afternoon of October 14th we kept our balloon above the water. We have to wait, what the night from the 14th to the 15th will bring. We hope to be driven towards land, because this area seems completely unused by ships, for we have not seen one for two days and two nights. We are both in the fog.” Messner, SchaeckReturn to 3rd Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett